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museum labels

You creatively addressed kiosks for giving directions to museum visitors--what would your ideal art museum label look like?

-- Jamie Johnson (email)

Serious documentation of art takes place in museum catalogs. How much documentation should be put up on the walls?

At the Getty, the signage sometimes seems overly didactic and eager to please. I prefer the spirit of the Barnes Foundation and the National Gallery: "Here's some great art in a beautiful building; not a lot of explaining is needed right now, and so everyone just take a good look."

Of course museum labels should not be designy, over-produced, and self-conscious, as if the designer is competing with the art and the museum architecture.

Explanatory labels can work very well (examples below). The words on explanatory labels will, however, govern what many museum visitors see. For alert visitors, it is a good idea to try to see with fresh eyes for a while--and then to read the label after looking over the art.

Here are some successful examples and methods of art labels:

At Storm King, the great outdoor sculpture collection, the pieces in the landscape are identified by plaques set in the ground near each piece. These labels have an appropriately muted visual vocabulary (words on flatland in the ground) in relation to the pieces (sculpture in 3-space above the ground). Plaques mounted on sticks up in the air would not work!

The hand-written labels attached to the ornate frames of pre-20th-century paintings belong nicely to the frame and perhaps the art. And they provide justification for the viewer to move real close to the art without agitating the museum guards.

Excellent examples of detailed explanatory labels are found in the Metropolitan Museum's wonderful collection of cylindrical seals. An idea of that work can be seen at

and then click on the cylindrical seal at right.

There is a superb explanatory label at the Art Institute, showing how a Picasso painting was divided into two pieces. (I don't have my notes on this with me; can a Kindly Contributor help? Can an illustration of that painting and label be found?)

A long time ago, the London Zoo provided charming tape-recorded accounts of each animal. The visitor activated the talking labels by means of a little plastic Zoo Key available to members.

Printed handouts with thumbnail images of the art are often successful. Dia Beacon and many other museums use handouts. Viewers can examine a handout when and where they wish. Handouts provided viewers with a record, a memory of the art seen at the Museum. Visitors can re-live their visit.

In my own shows of prints and sculpture, I have used handouts and have avoided labels up on the wall. At Artists Space in New York, I made labels in advance but took them down after hanging the show because of the clutter of too many little rectangles up on the wall. (I am not sure this was the right decision.) At the Architecture + Design Museum in Los Angeles, the prints shown were "bookprints" which usually had a substantial amount of text. By hypothesis but not actual test, I concluded that labels would not work well. At both shows, the wall space was mostly filled with art. With more empty wall space, perhaps labels on the wall would not appear overly fussy and active.

-- Edward Tufte

At a recent exhibit of French painting, I noticed that many of us were doing a very similar sort of dance - we would come up close to the paintings in order to read the labels, then retreat to get a better view of what were mostly pretty large canvases, followed by an advance to view some details. The only hand-outs available were so general as to be useless.

Either the labels should have been moved into the centers of the galleries, or we should have been provided with meaningful handouts (I'm partial to those that give me advice on the order of "and looking to the left, you will find the same theme repeated in the painting by...")

Apropos of this, I despise the tape machine thingies and always refuse them. Since they *replace* good labeling or handouts in some exhibits, the only way I can get comprehensive information about the exhibit is to purchase the catalog, which in many museums one generally does after going through the door to see the Egress.

-- Andrea (email)

The labeling issues discussed so far are dwarfed for me by problems of legibility: type face and size and label placement. My general impression is that small sans serif designs are overused.

My problem is worsened by the fact that I am taller than average and use bifocals. (Think Ichabod Crane repeatedly kneeling and standing or bending forward at the waist while his neck pulls back and he makes odd faces as he moves his glasses up and down in seach of focus.)

Assuming that museum exhibits will be labeled and that the labels should not compete with the display, what type face families, sizes, and placements (especially height from the floor) might be best?

-- George Brower (email)

In my first class in Museum Studies, we read an article from the turn of the century about the documented phenomenon of "Museum Fatigue," with hilarious photos showing visitors crouching, craning necks, stooped over, etc. to read labels and examine artifacts. You should not still be suffering this way after 100 years!

I work in a history museum, and I believe art museum visitors are unique in their willingness to read labels -- in fact, most people in natural history, science, or history museums simply won't read more than about two sentences at a time. This makes it mighty difficult to provide sensible, balanced explanations for many exhibits...

One solution is "layering" -- a simple, large-type label for people in a hurry (or with kids yanking at them!), with another more detailed label below for those who want more information. Video and audio components can also add depth, but should never replace good, basic labels. Those headset things are so isolating! I hate to see people standing around plugged into tape recorders instead of sharing their ideas with each o

-- Mikala Woodward (email)

Technology however blends multimedia for a user selected experience.


at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, there is a device which allows all text, including in depth 'read more' sections to be provided as a simple button press. The device is not limited to specific prerecorded tours. You can input artifact id codes found on any object in the museum to retrieve information about the object. Since headphones are not required, discussion can be promoted and on screen items shared with fellow museum goers. However, if one wishes, audio can be used in the traditional manner.

-- C Bruce (email)

You can also use digital labels and RFID cards. More info on this site

-- Fred Bouquet (email)

I did some Googling for the above-mentioned article on "Museum Fatigue" and found a Google Book Scan: "The Ideal of Restful Inspection: Museum Fatigue"

-- Austin Kleon (email)

Threads relevant to interface design:

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